Have in the Library? Yes!
This novel has been hailed as “timely,” and after seeing it in every bookstore window this winter, I knew I had to buy it for the Library. When I finally got around to reading it this summer, I found it so much more. Though the global politics of India and US relations play a part, as does 9/11 later on in the novel, the scope remains remaining appropriately “small”: it is a tale of the Lajpat Nagar bomb blast of 1996 (a real occurrence).
The Association of Small Bombs refers to the name of an organization for people bereaved by bomb blasts, but also to the characters in the story: the Hindu parents of two boys killed in Lajpat Nagar, their Muslim friend, a terrorist, and an activist, who form their own kind of association, bound by the bomb to each other, in often unexpected ways. Unraveling these connections, Mahajan draws you deeper into each character, while covering a few decades and a building great deal of suspense. Though less than 300 pages, these intricacies makes it feel like much a larger novel, and Mahajan has done an elegant job interweaving the strands.
What I most liked about the book was the way in which Mahajan refuses to give easy answers when tackling the loaded topic of terrorism. To say he humanizes the characters is to miss the point: of course, all of them are human, both victim and terrorist. It is simply that Mahajan writes them so realistically. There are issues of class, religious vs. secular, Hindu vs. Muslim, East vs. West, and in this sense, An Association of Small Bombs fits right in with the pantheon of South Asian fiction. But Mahajan doesn’t lapse into stereotypes and keeps everything raw: “’They should kill everyone in the Taliban,’” says Deepa, the bereaved mother. “‘When we see what is happening in the West, we are glad. We are glad George Bush is going after terrorists. It should be a lesson to our country’… Afterwards, they were shocked at themselves. They were no longer liberals.” There are moments of tenderness, equally surprising: the bomb maker going swimming with his best friend, “they held hands like lovers, though there was nothing sexual about this.” Most startling to me was this line: “The fewer that die, the lonelier the victims are. It’s better for the event to be big, to affect many. People say 9/11 was the worst terror attack of all time—was it? I think the small bombs that we hear about all the time, that go off in unknown markets, killing five or six, are worse,” observes one character, who concludes grimly, “Better to kill generously rather than stingily.”
This sentiment is echoed throughout the novel, perhaps the only conclusion that Mahajan allows for. The prose is smooth and even understated, and yet this will often be an uncomfortable read, especially for Americans. While 9/11 (and terror attacks on the Western world in general) are tragedies that produce worldwide empathy, it is other places that bear most of the burden of extremism. It is countries, like India, who are shaken by these “small bombs in unknown markets,” the ones we hear about “all the time,” on the TV or social media– the ones we scroll by and then forget. Like one character comments, when it comes to violence in the non-Western world, we’ve become “immune to the only disease without a cure.” As Mahajan deftly illustrates, what is often the most devastating is not the bomb, but the aftershock.